The Great Garden Giveaway
Green sweepstakes grows into its second year

The final harvest comes out of the Vallejos’ garden on Alamo Drive. The Vallejos family won last year’s Great Garden Giveaway, which puts a free vegetable garden in a local backyard. The winners of this year’s installment of the green sweepstakes will be announced in coming days./Photo by Steve Eginoire

by Katie Clancy

Face it: eating locally and organically has reached a tipping point. Forget airlifted seafood and exotic spices, we want our community gardens! If you haven’t jumped on the path to greening your cuisine, or need a little help getting started, then check out .

This fall, the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center, The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado, Your Backyard Harvest, and CSU Extension have joined together to provide one family with a free backyard garden along with training, tools and resources for growing their own food.

Does your gardening experience barely expand beyond grooming your Chia pet?

Think your back yard is too small to maintain a garden? Don’t worry: the team has you covered.

“It’s not the experience we look for, it’s the enthusiasm for the process. Whether you know how to maintain a garden or not, you’ll probably appreciate the help getting started,” one of the giveaway’s experts Shari Fitzgerald says. “The idea is to make it possible for anyone to grow their own food, so we are willing to be creative with raised beds and container gardens.”

The team, which includes technicians and garden experts such as Fitzgerald, Darrin Parmenter, Rebecca Schild, and Brooke Frazer, founder of Your Backyard Harvest, narrow down the applicants based on need, creativity and vision. This summer, they chose to sponsor a community garden, consisting of three families, from the 90 applications. The winners had high hopes of converting one back yard on 22nd Street and Alamo Drive into a community garden.

“I applied hoping to strengthen my family’s connection with my neighbors by sharing our garden,” says last year’s winner LeeAnn Vallejos. “We had already committed to eating locally and reducing our carbon footprint, so this was the next step. It was also important to teach our 5-year old son where and how our food is grown.”

Whether you are starting from scratch or just revamping your existing plot, winners have access to services like program facilitation, on-site consultation, tools and educational materials, and general support services. Garden programs include building raised beds and compost bins, transplanting seedlings, mending the soil, companion planting, and the infamous “bug day.”

After Vallejos’ application was chosen, a team visited the small garden that already existed to assess how to improve it. The first thing Fitzgerald’s team decided was to install a watering system, replacing the tedious hose method. Fitzgerald also shared seeds that would grow well in the garden such as scarlet runner beans, purple bush beans, and a spicy lettuce mixture.

Over the course of the summer, Fitzgerald acted as their garden coach. She answered the families’ questions and kept them on track with planting cycles and frost preparations. “Having Shari accessible made a huge difference to the success of the garden. We felt so supported during the entire process,” Vallejos says.

In addition to counseling, the package includes a 12-week class that runs throughout the growing season called Backyard Food Production. Offered through the CSU extension office, the program offers training in tree care, vegetables, soils, native plants, water wise gardening, insects and diseases of plants, and much more. The training utilizes on-site and distant education experts to teach the series.

“This is a great series for people coming in at a novice level,” the program’s coordinator Parmenter says. “People walk out with a wealth of knowledge offered by local experts about food production from a garden’s inception all the way through its harvest.”

The Vallejos team rotated throughout the winter and completed the course. The most valuable lesson? Soil education.

“We take so much out of this earth and soil, and we learned what to put back in order to regenerate it. It is the base to a successful garden. I never realized how important it was to learn how to support it with amendments and continuous care throughout the year (not just the planting season),” Vallejos reflects.

Thanks to the support of the Backyard Garden Giveaway, Vallejos’ community garden produced 95% of the family’s food during the summer. They harvested enough to make salsas, dehydrated good ies, and canned veggies to sustain them through the winter.

The Great Garden Giveaway will select next year’s winners in coming days. The giveaway’s deadline, Oct. 22, was chosen for the fall in order to prep the gardens for spring.

“We will start the soil prep now, making lasagna gardens by layering cardboard, compost, and manure over lawns and weed patches. This saves a lot of work when the winners begin tilling in the spring,” Fitzgerald explains.

As the Vallejos’ community garden harvests pumpkins and preps itself for the winter ahead, the Giveaway crew will meet to narrow down applicants. They will be announcing the winners on their website,, in the upcoming week.

“We are happy to affect one family with the garden, but ideally, this family will share their food, concepts and experience with the whole community,” Fitzgerald says. •



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